By Mike Antich
The recent drop in fuel prices has been as breathtaking as the earlier run-up in prices. If sustained, these reduced fuel prices will begin to make a dent in overall fleet fuel expenditures. However, there is the risk that lower prices may bring about driver complacency. A large part of fleet fuel expense is controlled by drivers. Many of the hard-won increases in fleet mpg can be negated by drivers reverting to less fuel-efficient driving behaviors.
As fleet managers, we need to ensure drivers remain energy conscious. Similar to turning off lights in unoccupied rooms at home, drivers should continue to practice energy conservation habits in their vehicles. An ongoing driver awareness program is needed to make them aware of how much excessive idling, aggressive driving behavior, and improper tire pressure affect mpg and your company's carbon footprint.
Here are some suggestions on how to ensure drivers don't revert to "fuelish" driving behaviors.
Driver Communication Program: Fleet managers should use e-mail newsletters to increase driver awareness of how their actions can increase or decrease fleet costs. One company that instituted a driver communication program is PPG Industries. "We are conducting a rigorous communication campaign to outline how driver behavior can be a major influence in our fuel usage," said Charles Szymanski, manager, global property casualty insurance & auto fleet for PPG Industries. "We have provided hard copy letters, e-mails, and Web links, which describe many ways drivers can save fuel. Our internal fleet Web site also provides this information, as well as a Web-based locator for www.cheapgas.com."
Avoid Unnecessary Idling: Turn off the engine whenever possible and stop long idling periods. An idling engine gets zero miles per gallon. Verizon Inc. has successfully reduced fuel costs by curbing unnecessary engine idling. Verizon estimates unnecessary idling costs the company about $20 million annually. Not only does prolonged idling waste fuel, it also creates unnecessary emissions. However, you need to exercise caution with anti-idling programs. Turning off the engine may disable safety features, such as airbags. Drivers should be advised to utilize this strategy only in situations with no possibility of collision.
Maintain Proper Tire Inflation: One underinflated tire can cut fuel economy by 2 percent per pound of pressure below the proper inflation level. One out of four drivers, on average, drive vehicles with one or more underinflated tires. When a tire is underinflated by 4 to 5 psi below the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure, vehicle fuel consumption increases by 10 percent and, over time, causes a 15-percent reduction in tire tread life. Check the vehicle's doorpost sticker for minimum cold tire inflation pressure.
Keep Trunks Clean: Cars, like cargo trucks, get much better mileage when not loaded with unnecessary weight. Every 200 lbs. of additional weight trims one mile off fuel efficiency. Most drivers accumulate material in their trunks, much of it unnecessary. Instruct drivers to remove all unnecessary items from the trunk, such as unneeded tools or materials.
Encourage Drivers to be Price Conscious: Fleets need to encourage drivers to continue to be "price sensitive" when refueling. Encourage drivers to look for the best net fuel pricing.
Monitor Fuel Exception Reports: The most common approach to mitigating the impact of higher fuel costs is increased attention to fuel management exception reports. Fleet managers are closely monitoring fuel exception reports to catch outliers. For instance, very few vehicles actually need premium fuel. By restricting and enforcing rules on buying regular fuel, most fleets can save as much as 10 cents per gallon or more.
Monitor Personal Use: Fleets must remain diligent about monitoring personal use. Most fleet managers are surprised at how much fuel is used "moving your brother-in-law" with the company van on the weekend.
Carpooling: Encourage drivers to carpool when they know they will be in the office all day for meetings or catching up on paperwork.
Drive the Speed Limit: Driving fast wastes gas. Traveling at 65 miles per hour uses 10-15 percent more fuel than driving at 55 mph. By adhering to speed limits, a driver will conserve fuel. Also, use cruise control during highway driving. Unnecessary changes in speed are wasteful, and the use of cruise control helps improve fuel economy.
Avoid "Jackrabbit" Starts and Stops: A car consumes extra fuel when accelerating. To maximize fuel economy, drivers need to examine their driving habits. Simply limiting acceleration and fast braking can increase fuel economy. When accelerating, suggest drivers pretend they have a fresh egg underneath their right foot. A light, steady pressure helps minimize the amount of fuel consumed and maintain a more moderate and steady speed.
Avoid Aggressive Driving: The largest fuel waste occurs with aggressive driving. Time studies show that fast starts, weaving in and out of traffic, and accelerating to and from a stop light doesn't save much time, wastes fuel, and wears out components, such as brakes and tires, faster. By not driving aggressively, drivers can save up to 20 percent in fuel economy, advises the EPA.
Use A/C Sparingly: An air conditioner is one of the biggest drains on engine power and fuel economy. It can reduce gas consumption by 5 to 20 percent, depending on the type of vehicle and the way it is driven. Don't use it as a fan to simply circulate air. Use the vent setting and fan to circulate air.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
Small increases in mpg can result in substantial savings when extrapolated across the entire fleet. "We calculated the annual savings in fuel cost we could gain if each of our drivers simply increased their individual fuel economy by one mile per gallon," said Lynda Dinwiddie, associate VP, fleet & travel for Labcorp. "A one mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency increase has the potential of saving us over $1 million annually versus 2007."
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